What Would Have to Be True for That Outcome to Occur?

Have you ever had a long-term disagreement with someone else? I’m going to discuss something small: when to take the garbage out for garbage day. (Talk about a first-world problem!)

Our garbage day is Wednesday and nothing about our pickup is predictable. The current garbage company picks up the recycling and the actual garbage at different times. Also, they arrive at different times during the day.

We almost missed one week because the garbage people arrived before 7 am. (A potential disaster!)

Mark grumbled about them coming too early and about our town rules about how when we can bring the garbage out to the curb.

I’m pretty sure I said to ignore the town rules and just get the garbage out. I even volunteered, because I can take the garbage out with my rollator. I no longer need my car.

He grumbled more, because he’s the Man of the House and it’s His Responsibility to Take Out the Garbage.

Oh, please.

We both live here, and it’s entirely possible I make more than my fair share of garbage. I know I do for recycling. So that argument seemed, ahem, less than useful.

However, I did ask this question: What would have to be true to always know we don’t miss the garbage and recycling pickup?

That question can sidestep strongly-held beliefs and create possibilities. It did for us, and we (mostly Mark) now takes out the garbage the evening before, after 7 pm. That timing meets all of our criteria, to get the garbage out and abide by town laws.

Create More Possibilities

The more strongly-held beliefs we have about the way things should be, the more likely we are to cling to our beliefs.

However, we need to see the reality that Things Have Changed.

In the case of the garbage, the timing started to change a couple of years ago, maybe with the onset of the pandemic. I no longer remember if there was a precipitating incident. But I noticed the recycling truck came earlier and earlier, even when the garbage pickup was later and later.

Now, this new company arrives even earlier than the early times from the old company.

Once we see what’s changed (a Foreign Element in the Satir Change Model), we can create more possibilities. And when we cling to the shoulds of the previous reality, we might need a little jiggle to create more options. That’s why “What would have to be true…” is such a great question.

When I asked, “What would have to be true for us to get the garbage out on time and know we won’t miss the truck?” we created these options:

  • Mark could bring out all the recycling and the garbage at 6 am before his workout. (I’m not awake at 6, so that’s not an option for me.)
  • I could set my alarm and get up early, maybe even 6:45. (No, and that’s not early enough to make sure our garbage is ready.)
  • We could bring out the garbage the night before. After 7, so we don’t run afoul of the town rules.

We chose the last option. I can do this even if Mark is traveling, although, I might start at 5pm or as I finish dinner when he’s gone. A little early, but still doable.

Mark no longer grumbles, and I’m no longer throwing on a coat over my pjs to take out the garbage. All because we create options based on the outcome we wanted.

Options Based on Outcomes Matter

I certainly wish that things were back to the way they were before. However, they aren’t. And when we can agree on the outcomes we want, we can often create much better options.

For example, let’s take finishing a project at work. We might say, “We want to finish by Oct. 15.” If we ask, “What would have to be true to achieve the Oct. 15 date?” We might create these options:

  • Since we can’t see the state of the product clearly yet, we need more help in testing. Once we know more, we can then review the release criteria and decide what else to do.
  • We know we have to ship anyway, so let’s stop adding more features and make sure everything in there now works. Maybe even start removing troublesome features.
  • Let’s make sure we agree on the one most important thing we have to do by Oct 15 and make sure that thing works. We can then walk down the list, always making sure the next most important thing works.

Since I’m incorrigible, I would probably ask the question, “What has to be true to make Oct 15 such an important date?” The answer to that question might help us decide which of the other options makes the most sense. Or, if we need different options.

Yes, you can recurse on this question. It’s almost like the Five Whys, but without an inner two-year-old asking, “Why?” In addition, the what would have to be true question focuses on outcomes, where we both might agree.

When We Focus on Mutual Outcomes We Can Create More Options

When we focus on outcomes, we might find a lot more common ground. In the case of the garbage, Mark and I found common ground almost immediately. In the case of problems at work, we can often find that common ground.

We can find common ground in politics, assuming we are not posturing about our position, but actually want to solve problems. (See Are You Attached to the Process or the Outcome?)

The “What would have to be true” question honors both people’s beliefs, while it focuses on outcomes. And that question helps us see reality as we use it to create more options.

That’s the question this week: What would have to be true for that outcome to occur?

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